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McConnell's support for tougher gun laws reflects a changed political landscape

Public opinion has shifted, and McConnell wants to win back suburbs for Republicans. He's also motivated to prove the Senate can function with the filibuster intact.
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WASHINGTON — A decade ago, when 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school in Connecticut, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell extended his thoughts and prayers, mourning a tragedy he said “stands out in its awfulness” — and then used the filibuster to block a bipartisan bill to toughen gun laws.

But last month, after a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, murdered 19 elementary school children and two teachers, McConnell did something different: He said Congress should act, and gave Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, his blessing to cut a deal with Democrats on modestly stricter gun laws, which he endorsed on Tuesday.

McConnell’s shift reflects a new political paradigm as mass shootings become more frequent in the United States. Permissive gun laws have allowed easy access to AR-15-style rifles, including for dangerous people who aim to commit murder. The Kentucky Republican also has a political incentive: Winning back suburban voters, who support gun control but have drifted away from the GOP coalition and toward Democrats in recent elections.

For McConnell — a longstanding opponent of gun control, who has branded himself the "grim reaper" of progressive priorities — an openness to a gun bill also reflects his desire to show the Senate can work with the 60-vote filibuster rule intact. A GOP leadership aide familiar with his thinking said it'd prove the Senate is "not broken" and that "those who want to change the rules are wrong."

The final bill has yet to be written, but many senators in both parties sound optimistic, with the framework deal alone marking a sea change after nearly three decades of failure to address gun violence.

“There’s no question that the school shootings have represented a change in the environment,” Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a former Republican presidential candidate in 2012, told NBC News in an interview. “That has made a lot of us say: Are there some things we can do that do not infringe on the rights of gun owners — but at the same time, make it more difficult for disturbed young people to commit acts of such horror?”

McConnell is attuned to the political trends as he seeks to win Senate control for Republicans in the midterm election this fall.

One day after the 2020 election, he said he’s “disturbed by the loss of support in the suburbs” for GOP candidates. “If you look at our situation, the Republican situation nationally, I think we need to win back the suburbs. We need to do better with college-educated voters than we’re doing lately, and we need to do better with women.”

In a CBS News poll taken this month, 69 percent of American women said gun laws should be more strict (6 percent said less strict); and 65 percent of white college graduates said they should be more strict (10 percent said less strict). And the status quo isn’t appealing to them: Just a quarter of women and white college graduates said gun laws should stay the same.

“McConnell can read the polls as well as anyone. There’s broad public support for doing something given the magnitude of the tragedy in Uvalde,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil and gas executive.

“Republicans are being painted as extremists on every issue because of the MAGA issue. Guns are an issue where they can disprove that narrative and support a reasonable approach,” he said. “They can’t move on abortion. But they have more room to negotiate on guns.”

Support is 'off the charts, overwhelming'

At a closed-door Senate GOP meeting Tuesday, Cornyn presented to Republicans a poll of 1,000 people in gun-owning households which found 79 percent support “red flag” laws, 86 percent support closing the boyfriend loophole, and 87 percent support including juvenile records in the background check system, according to slides shared with NBC News by a source familiar with the meeting.

Moments later, McConnell emerged and told reporters that "support for the provisions of the framework is off the charts, overwhelming."

Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Republican campaign operative, attributed the intra-party shift to a growing prevalence of mass shootings and a “realignment of the GOP coalition.”

“Suburban Romney voters who had once been squarely part of the base are now up for grabs, if not beginning to lean Democrat, and this is the sort of issue that could make a big difference at the margin, both in the midterms and going forward,” Donovan said.

Democrats say the public mood has shifted dramatically.

"Americans are really scared," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "There is a totally different frame of mind now."

Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the chair of the Democrats' election arm, said there is "overwhelming support in the country for gun safety laws and dealing with the gun issue." He said there is "no question in my mind" the suburbs are propelling it, adding that expanded background checks have about 80 percent public support.

"There are very few issues that get that kind of support, right now, than dealing with gun safety," Peters said in an interview.

'It hurts the Second Amendment's integrity'

Still, it's unclear whether Republicans will find the 20 to 25 votes they want. Many senators are warily watching the reactions of conservative activists (including the National Rifle Association) and commentators to see if they'd face a backlash for backing a bill.

The same electoral realignment that has made some Republicans more willing to play ball on gun legislation has left others in the party more reliant on single-issue pro-gun voters. Notably, McConnell's top deputies — Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming, who represent small rural states with a gun culture — have not taken a position on the framework.

Some Republicans say the party needs to make concessions to keep guns away from dangerously unwell people, or they risk delegitimizing the Second Amendment entirely.

“Even if you’re a big proponent — which I am — of the Second Amendment, there are some things you’re going to have to do if you want to keep it intact in the long run,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. “Guns in the hands of the mentally ill … every time that happens I think it hurts the Second Amendment’s integrity.”

Two senior Senate Republican aides said the increased prevalence of mass shootings has softened the caucus’ resistance to action.

Cornyn said the lead Democratic negotiators, Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, were "very reasonable" in being willing to narrow the negotiations to areas that Republicans could agree to.

"And when we told them that if you add that, we can’t get 60 votes for it, they were very pragmatic and practical," Cornyn said.